"Show me somebody who goes hard all the time and I will show you a career about to end."
- "Powerlifter 54" of the Dragon Door Forum
Milo of Crete, a Greek wrestler of antiquity, is most famous for carrying a baby calf everyday for its first four years of life. The story is often cited when talking about progressive overload training. We all know that while it is a great story, if you were to follow a training plan that continually escalates in intensity and/or volume, eventually (quicker than you might think) the weight would become too great and you would either plateau or injure yourself. So, why then do we think we can follow concentrated loading plans long term? Why do we rationalize our high-intensity, high-volume training plans and think that somehow "I'll be different if I can eat enough, or rest enough, or vary the exercise selection in just the right way"?
Part of the problem is that people start out training gung-ho and see results. Novice lifters, though they don't need it, can handle a relatively large amount of volume at higher levels of intensity and still make gains. It doesn't work so well for intermediate and advanced lifters. Let's look at two hypothetical trainees of different lifting experience: Lifter A has been lifting for six months and Lifter B has been lifting for six years. If the training plan calls for 10 sets of triples with 90% of their maximum single repetition squat, which lifter is going to be able to complete the training session in better shape?
Max Squat = 200lbs
Training = 180lbs x 3 x 10 sets
Total Volume = 5400
Max Squat = 500lbs
Training = 450lbs x 3 x 10 sets
Total Volume = 13,500
At first glance, you might be tempted to think that since both lifters are training at 90% of their maximum, that they should be equally fatigued. However, this is not the case. Very likely, Lifter A will not only be able to complete their sets, but also look around the gym wondering what to do next to finish their workout. Lifter B, on the other hand, if they finish the sets, will probably be barely able to walk.
It is more than simply a question of volume, although that is important in the example given. But, even if we halved the number of sets for the 500lb squatter, it would still be a herculean effort for them to complete the session. There is another reason why advanced strength athletes can't push the pedal to the metal as often as newbies and intermediate trainees and the reason has to do with a fancy sounding concept called the "muscle strength deficit" (MSD). The MSD is the difference between the force your muscles can generate when forced by electro-stimulation and the force they can generate voluntarily in training. The deficit is much greater in sedentary subjects than for trained subjects, and elite strength athletes may have a very small MSD. So, what does that mean for your training? It means that the more experienced you are, the more coordinated you are and the more muscle you are recruiting to your cause to move heavy weights. In very simple terms, as you get stronger, when you push the envelope, the closer you REALLY are pushing things to their limit. An advanced lifter who is grinding out reps will need more recovery time than novice doing the same. Yes, work capacity matters and increases with training, but developing it is a slow process.
Most people who've been training for a while can push well beyond what is best for them. Not coincidentally, most injuries I've had training were after 3-4 weeks of concentrated loading without adequate recovery - just looking at ever increasing training numbers in a log, without any attention to volume or intensity, gave NO clue or hint that I was heading toward injury. As a very general rule of thumb, most people can go balls to the wall for 2-4 weeks and then it's time to back off. Intentional or unintentional, meticulously planned or "instinctive", it doesn't matter, but fail to back off when your body needs it and you could very well be heading for a fall.
"Power has its own rhythms and patterns. Those who succeed at the game are the ones who control the patterns and vary them at will... The essence of strategy is controlling what comes next, and the elation of victory can upset your ability to control what comes next in two ways. First, you owe your success to a pattern that you are apt to try to repeat. You will try to keep moving in the same direction without stopping to see whether this is still the direction that is best for you. Second, success tends to go to your head and make you emotional. Feeling invulnerable, you make aggressive moves that ultimately undo the victory you have gained."
- Robert Green (The 48 Laws of Power)
For Further Reading:
Dan John's Nautilus, Crossfit, and "HiHi" (T-Nation Article)
Charles Staley's The Classic Things You Will Do In The Gym To Shoot Yourself In The Foot (Online Article)